“Someone saw him leaving her rooms.”
“Ah.” Hugo touched his fingertips together. “When you say, someone saw him…was the man in question identified?”
“No. The second housemaid saw a darkened figure leaving the female servants’ quarters.”
“Why did suspicion fall upon her, then? Had she a beau? A flirtation of some kind with a man?”
He asked the questions, but his mind was already racing far ahead. She’d admitted the duke hadn’t forced her. Had he made her promises? Seduced her?
“No,” Gordon said. “But when the matter was raised, they checked. There was blood on her sheets, and it wasn’t her time.”
A little shock went through him at all that implied. In the square below, Miss Barton raised her chin. He couldn’t make out her features, but he could remember her gray eyes snapping at him as she spoke.
How could you imagine that fifty pounds and a reference would paper over what happened to me? she’d asked.
She’d been a virgin. That meant that Clermont had acted badly—even worse than Hugo had supposed. She’d claimed she hadn’t been forced. But there were degrees of force, and all the ones that suggested themselves here made Hugo the villain in this particular drama.
He resented that Clermont had foisted that role upon him.
“If you need to rid yourself of her,” Gordon said, “a few words about this in the right ears, and she’ll be driven off in no time at all.”
She would be. There had been a similar case last year—a lady’s maid dismissed for indecent conduct. He’d seen the whole thing from his window. The other servants had crowded around her in the square when she left with her single valise. They’d jostled her. They’d called her names, ones he’d heard from even this distance, with a pane of glass and fifty feet between them. They’d called her whore and slut, and those had hardly been the worst of the epithets hurled. He’d been halfway down the stairs to put an end to the riot when someone had thrown a rock.
Somehow, the sight of her blood had been as effective at dispersing the crowd as a legion of constables wielding billyclubs.
Hugo had few pretensions about his own morals. He’d done a number of things that didn’t skirt the boundaries of ethical conduct so much as trample through them. But he didn’t like thinking of Miss Barton at the center of such a crowd. It wasn’t a faceless throng that he saw around her when he envisioned that, but his own father looming, broom in hand.
You’ll never bloody amount to anything, boy, so get back out there—
“Well?” Gordon asked. “Am I to spread the story?”
“That seems…awfully kind,” Gordon said dubiously.
“Nothing of the sort.”
It was simple self-preservation. If someone threw a rock at Miss Barton, Hugo was liable to kill him in cold blood. He would never achieve any of his ambitions if he hanged for murder.
Besides, the whole point was to keep Clermont’s name out of the business. If she were labeled a slut, it would take the gossips a few short hours to decide who she’d been playing the slut with.
There were better ways to drive her away. The pressure he’d applied so far was mere child’s play.
He didn’t want to do it. He liked her. He admired her. There was something about her that wouldn’t leave him alone. It ran entirely against his grain to crush the dreams and ambitions of a woman like her.
All the more reason she had to go. Every time he talked to her, he became more entangled.
It was time to truly flex his muscle. Gordon was not the only man he’d sent out to make inquiries. He waved the other man back a few steps, turned from the window, and opened the file he’d made on Miss Barton.
For the moment, Miss Barton lived with her sister, Miss Frederica Barton, in an attic room in Cheapside. The elder Miss Barton subsisted on the income from an annuity deposited at Daughtry’s Bank.
“No,” he repeated, more to convince himself than anything. “It’s time to end the matter.”
She was lovely and brave and all too stubborn. In some other world, he would have pursued a woman like her until he won her for his own. He would have stoked the attraction between them until it grew to a crackling heat. But he had no patience for wistful imaginings. It wasn’t companionship that he hungered for deep down.
It might be fine indeed to take her for his own. But it wasn’t the want of a woman that stole his sleep. He woke up remembering his father standing over him broom in hand, the smell of liquor on his breath.
You’ll never amount to anything. Your filthy life isn’t worth the bloody rags you’re wearing.
No. There was an abyss of need inside him, but no woman could fill it. No matter how resolutely this one looked into his eyes.
Hugo reached for his inkwell and dipped his pen. Gordon watched as he scrawled something on the paper, sealed it, added the direction, and then handed it over.
“Deliver this,” he said.
It had been a long day for Serena, made longer by the simple fact that nothing had happened. She’d told Mr. Marshall to do his worst. But he’d simply filled the bench with other people and left her alone.
After their tête-à-tête on the bench, she’d expected something. Anything other than nothing.
She opened the door to her sister’s apartment with a sigh.
“Freddy?” she called.
Freddy didn’t answer. The room was too silent. There was no clicking of knitting needles, no rustling of fabric. But her sister’s things were still hanging in the entryway, and besides, she wouldn’t have gone out. Not this close to dusk. Serena frowned and walked into the other room.
Freddy sat in her chair, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. She rocked back and forth ever so slightly, her whole body trembling. On the floor, lying in a forlorn heap, was a half-finished baby’s blanket.
“Freddy, whatever is the matter?”
“Read it,” Freddy said. Her voice shook. She jerked her chin at the table before her. “Read it.”
There was a letter on the table. Serena didn’t know what to think. She snatched it up and skimmed it quickly. It was from Freddy’s landlord. “It has come to my attention…” she muttered, reading aloud at first. But her breath caught on the next sentence. She couldn’t even speak those words. By the time she got to the end, she was breathless with rage.
She’d thought that the Wolf of Clermont had left her alone today. Ha. She looked at her sister, her arms wrapped about herself. It was one thing to annoy Serena herself. It was quite another to do harm to Freddy.